"First piece of gold..."California Gold Rush: James Marshall Discovery Relic Brooch. We get to handle so many amazing items at Heritage that it is easy to become a little jaded. However, every once in awhile we have an item which stands out even among this distinguished company! Offered here is an oval brooch measuring 1 1/4" x 1" with a T-bar pin attachment on the verso. The front holds a sizable gold flake housed under glass and surrounded by mother-of-pearl. The accompanying envelope which held the brooch for many decades has what appear to be 19th century inked inscriptions on either side which are somewhat difficult to decipher. The front side is inscribed: "First Piece of Gold discovered by Marshall in California" while the back side seems to read: "First River..." There is an abundance of documentation that indicates this is, indeed, one of the first gold flakes discovered at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California on January 24, 1848 by James Wilson Marshall. The initial findings consisted of flakes removed from the American River. Nuggets were not found until later diggings were established. It was this discovery that was the spark that ignited the California Gold Rush of 1849. The brooch was the property of Abigail Ely Reeve Blackwell (1848-1921), the niece of James Marshall, and the maternal great grandmother of the consignor. The brooch was given to Abigail on the occasion of her birth in 1848. Abigail lived with the consignor's mother until 1921 when it passed to her. The consignor received it upon the death of his mother in 1988.
At the time of the initial discovery, Marshall collected a small amount of gold which he brought up to Capt. John Sutter at Sutter's Fort, forty miles away. Men at the mill site helped themselves to gold during Marshall's absence. About 240 ounces were collected and sent to the Philadelphia Mint to be assayed and sold. Some of it was used to produce gold pieces, some to produce a Congressional Medal awarded to Winfield Scott and some given to the Smithsonian Institution. According to a 1924 article published by the Pioneer Society of California, Marshall sent some flakes to his mother in Lambertville, New Jersey which she had fashioned into a brooch and gave to her granddaughter Abigail. It is this brooch that we offer here. The lot includes the brooch, the partial envelope that contained the brooch, a cabinet card of Marshall which descended through the family, a notarized letter of authenticity from the consignor, a file of genealogical and research material related to Marshall, and the envelope with notations by the consignor's mother in which she kept the brooch and related materials until her passing.
But perhaps the most interesting accompanying item is a large portrait, circa 1864, of a sixteen year old Abigail wearing what appears to be this very brooch! As was the fashion of the time, the portrait was created by over-painting a large photographic image. At her neck Abigail wears what certainly looks to be the brooch offered here. The shape seems somewhat more round in the painting, but this may be the result of casual attention to detail by the artist, as the gold flakes appear to be clearly recognizable in the center of the pin. In the portrait a man's watch chain is worn suspended from the brooch. There is no indication that it was ever attached to the piece, so possibly it was just hung through the pin on reverse for the purposes of this photograph. One might well surmise that it was an object of importance and sentimental value to Abigail, and perhaps even belonged to her famous uncle. However, the watch chain and its significance have been lost in several generations of family history.
This portrait has dominated the family's staircase for many years, and it was a difficult decision for them to part with it. However, in the end it was felt that Abigail's portrait should pass to the new custodian of her treasured brooch.
The painting measures 26" x 32" including a very fine, ornate original Victorian frame. Display condition is good, although it would probably benefit from a proper cleaning. An old label on the back indicates that it had some restoration work done in 1963. The frame is in excellent condition except for two fine cracks at 3:00 and 9:00.
Service and Handling Description: Miscellaneous Collectibles, Large (view shipping information)
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